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Merle's Gastronomic Adventures

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

12:00AM - [info] closing down for now Sticky

My last update was in 2007. Since then I have eaten extensively in San Francisco, Emeryville, Concord, and Walnut Creek. While this is still part of the Bay Area it is not particularly as central to Oakland and one might say my lack of updates here reflects a change in my posting hobbies.

No new posts or comments for now. Should I reboot this journal it may well be in some other city.

Fare thee well, those who read of meals here. Eat well!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

10:00PM - sorry for the lack of updates [info]

I became disheartened after spilling water on several pages of notes (written in water-soluble ink) covering six months. Alas. Then I was in a different part of the bay, and soon will be again.

My format will likely change from a post per visit to overall impressions over many visits as I backfill.

Current mood: silly

Thursday, February 15, 2007

1:00PM - Don Ramon [San Francisco]

Don Ramon got some great reviews, but it's always hard to tell with expensive gringo-oriented Mexican restaurants. I was in a group and had little choice, but others were paying, so it was okay.

The chips and salsa that came out were great. The salsa was red, and had a nice tomatoy taste. They refill them, but in a really strange way. Rather than waiting for you to be done, they would zip away with it when it was running low -- not just one basket at a time, but all three baskets on the table simultaneously. It didn't seem to be optimization, since there were only three tables with people seated, and several people were standing around waiting to refill the chips.

The crab enchilada had been recommended to me, but its description said "soaked in butter". Bleah. So instead I went with the enchilada/tostada combo. A chicken enchilada and a beef tostada, for variety.

The tostada was more of a salad on top of a tortilla that was somehow both soft enough you couldn't pick it up, and hard enough you couldn't chop it with a fork. They were good fresh toppings, though. After several attempts I just decided to eat the toppings off with a fork. The enchilada was edible once the top cheese removed, but not much better than that. The rice was bad, and the beans were not much better, but I rarely expect good rice and beans from gringo Mexican restaurants.

It was very expensive. Free soda refills, but even so, one meal and one drink was over $20. Great service, mediocre food, and I won't be rushing back.

Don Ramon
225 11th St
San Francisco, CA

Current mood: unimpressed

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

1:00PM - Phuong Nam [DO]

It was late, and I just needed to grab something, so I called Phuong Nam for some pho tai nam to go. Normally this is a good choice, because my food has always been ready by the time I get there.. but they were incredibly busy today, and uncoordinated. It ended up being fifteen minutes before my food was ready.

The prices went up, too - $6.75 pre-tax for simple pho. Only Pho 84 costs more. This pho is pretty good, but not that great.

The most interesting thing was that the containers they gave me were quite different. There was a takeout box, and a broth container that looked like a pie pan. The good thing about it is that the broth container has just enough room so that everything can fit in all at once without overflowing. The bad thing, though, is that since the noodles came in a cube in the takeout box, I could not fit them all in the fluid at once.

The other bad thing is that since the surface area was so much greater, it cooled off rapidly, leaving me with cold pho before I finished half of it. In the past, I have eaten takeout pho in two batches, saving off half of the broth and noodles and microwaving just the broth before the second half. But with all of the food together, I could not microwave it (it would no doubt be bad for the noodles, raw bean sprouts, and meat).

It is true that I didn't have to reach way down with spoon and chopsticks, which is nice, but I was also left with a shallow pool of broth at the end that was impossible to spoon out. So overall, I don't really like the new containers.

There were no jalapenos, but there were carrot shreds in the sprouts. I have no idea what was up with that.

Phuong Nam
1615 Clay St
Oakland, CA
Mon-Sat 11a-9p

Current mood: disappointed

Sunday, February 4, 2007

2:00PM - Vientian Cafe [Oakland]

Superbowl Sunday! Time to find a restaurant with no television, because (hopefully) nobody will be there. So I sought out a Laotian restaurant, similar to Champa Gardens, that I presumed would not have a television. Alas, they did have one.

Vientian Cafe is in the middle of a residential area, just like Champa Gardens is. I'm not sure if that's just how Laotian restaurants are, but it does make parking easier. Both places are crowded and a bit loud, though, and Vientian Cafe was definitely cramped.

The fresh spring rolls were just okay. They were indeed fresh, but did not have a lot of flavour. The peanut dipping sauce helped a bit, but the rolls should be able to hold their own.

The tom kha gai was very good, possibly the best I've had in a long while. The broth was quite meaty, which was a change from other places. It had just the right amount of mushrooms and other vegetables to keep it from being too thin.

Strangely enough, right when the soup was delivered, they asked if I wanted rice. Presumably this was for the main course, but it was delivered immediately, and sat there getting cold for twenty minutes. That was poorly timed.

The main course, a special of pumpkin curry, was only so-so. It had a nice curry taste, and the pumpkin went quite well with it, but I felt a bit strange when I got home, as if it had had a bunch of MSG in it. There were also a ton of bell peppers in it, which was not part of the description of the dish. Tasty, but disconcerting.

All in all, enjoyable enough, even if I ordered poorly. I wouldn't go out of my way to return (because Champa Gardens is closer and has slightly better fare), but if you're in the area, it's not a bad destination, if only for the soup.

Vientian Cafe
3801 Allendale
Oakland, CA
Daily 11a-9p

Current mood: not unhappy

Monday, December 18, 2006

12:00PM - Fat Cat Cafe [DO]

I had always meant to try Fat Cat for many years. But sandwiches aren't my usual fare, so I never quite made it there. Today I did, because I had a craving for a French dip sandwich, and they offered one.

I called in the order, went over, and picked it up, only to wonder where my food was. It seemed rude to look inside of the bag, but it was so light that I wondered if they had forgotten to put the sandwich in. No, it was there. It was just a very small sandwich.

It was quite tasty. And there was just the right amount of au jus, and good quality roast beef. I could have done without the provolone, but otherwise it was what I wanted.. only a bit small. For $7 (cost t/t), it was just half of a lunch.

#80 in my downtown Oakland restaurant count, and even though I thought the offering was small, it outstripped most of the newer places I have tried.

Fat Cat Cafe
1720 Telegraph
Oakland, CA
Mon-Fri 7:30a-4p

Current mood: pricy

Friday, December 15, 2006

12:00PM - Zza's [OGL]

Zza's used to be a frequent destination for me. Out of all the California-Italian restaurants, I liked it the best, and the crayons for drawing on the paper tablecloth were a nice touch. But the noise level is quite high in the evenings, and it got a bit old, so has been a long time. They recently started offering lunch, and a bunch of coworkers decided it would be nice to try it out.

Although the restaurant was mostly empty aside from us (two other groups entered later on), there were a lot of problems ordering. The soup I ordered turned out not to be available, so I changed to another soup.. only to have the waitress tell me half an hour later that that soup was not ready yet. When we ordered bruschetta, we tried to indicate we wanted the appetizer from the "antipasti/appetizer" section of the menu rather than the meal. And ended up with both bruschetta and their standard antipasti plate. The people who ordered the seafood cioppino were belatedly told that there were neither clams nor crab, even though it was crab season. Several drinks ordered were not available, requiring a second decision. Between the confusion and them not actually having a lot of the menu items, it was a bit disappointing.

The food itself was pretty good. The bruschetta is better here than at most places, and even though we hadn't wanted it, the antipasti plate was pretty good.

My dish was good enough, but not what I expected. I ordered the Coda alla Bufala, described as "braised oxtail in white wine and mixed vegetables with garlic-mashed potatoes". All three of those sounded good. But they were served mixed together, rather than separate, which detracted from the experience.

Service itself was pleasant, but slow. Given that they were fairly empty, but slow, out of food, and prone to making mistakes, I wouldn't recommend Zza's for lunch. If you do not mind the crowds and noise in the evening, though, I would say that that is the time to go.

552 Grand Ave
Oakland, CA
Tue-Sun 11a-3p, Sun-Thu 5-10p, Fri-Sat 5-11p

Current mood: ambivalent

Thursday, December 14, 2006

12:00PM - Don Willy's Taqueria [DO]

About two months ago, after Lupillo's closed and Don Willy's first opened, I went there. It was only okay. Two months later I decided to give it a try again.

The service was much improved, as they had figured out where everything was and what components went with what meals. I guess service tends to be bad the very first week a restaurant is open, because unlike weddings, they probably don't do trial runs.

The salsa was also much better. It came close to the salsa from the long-defunct Mi Casa, which is high praise from me.

The meat was unfortunately not so good. I ordered two tacos, since I did not feel hungry. The carnitas one has three large chunks of carnitas, rather than a nicely sliced and ripped apart selection, and it was dry and greasy. The pastor was slightly better, but was lacking that smoky and tangy taste that most pastor has. There was very little meat on the tacos. In the past, I could take the two tortillas and move half of the toppings onto the bottom one, and still have pretty full tacos. This time it was not enough for two tacos.

Sad, as the salsa was great, the service was improved, and I still think this is the most authentic Mexican taco place in downtown Oakland. I may return in the future, but not for a while.

Don Willy's Taqueria
333 17th St
Oakland, CA
Mon-Fri 8:30a-4:30p

Current mood: torn

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

12:00PM - I.B.'s Hoagies #2 [DO]

I was in the rare mood for a hoagie, but needed to grab something really quickly. So I headed around the corner to the nearer I.B.'s, which, from what I have heard, is not nearly as good as the one on 21st street.

I ordered a "chicken mush" (cheesesteak with chicken and mushrooms). Remembering that pickles weren't good in the sandwich, I asked for some on the side.

When I got back to work, I found that not only were they quite generous with the pickles, giving me over a dozen when sandwiches normally just get four or five, but they had tossed in a bunch of free curly fries. Bonus! I'm not sure if they are just more generous here, or if they had made extra and they were getting old. The fries were a bit extra crispy. But that's how I like them.

The hoagie itself was okay: not as good as the ones from the other place, but still tasty. And with the fries, I could only finish half of it, saving the rest for the next day Two lunches for $6 isn't too bad at all.

Downtown Oakland restaurant #79 for me (if you allow two instances of a franchise to both count, which I do).

I.B.'s Hoagies #2
1601 San Pablo
Oakland, CA
Mon-Fri 8a-4p

Current mood: pleasantly surprised

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

12:00PM - Ichiro [DO]

Feeling like eating sushi, I went for my standard two orders of maki: the poki maki (spicy tuna rolls with cold seaweed salad on top) and avocyu (avocado/cucumber). And they were good and fresh as always.

I went with exact change, but they apparently raised their prices about fifty cents per item since my last trip. That might explain why it was almost empty at noon. Ichi-san was standing around chatting rather than frantically preparing fish, something that practically never happens. Of course, it was also just after Thanksgiving, so maybe everyone was just bringing turkey sandwiches into work...

412 15th St
Oakland, CA
Mon-Fri 11:30a-2:30p, Mon-Thu 5p-9p, Fri-Sat 5p-10p

Current mood: happy enough

Monday, November 27, 2006

12:00PM - Kyoto Express [DO]

Normally I get either the chicken or beef udon, or the teriyaki/maki special here. But having had a lot of meat at home recently, I decided to go for the tofu and veggie udon. "Extra spicy", of course.

And it was indeed nice and spicy. The tofu was not amazing, but I did not mind the lack of meats.

Since I had some sitting around as snack food, I tore up and added in some "ajitsuke nori" (thin sheets of spicy seaweed) towards the end. That worked quite nicely. Normally things like the seaweed and scallions float to the top, and are gone before I am halfway done. I'll have to keep some around for future trips.

Kyoto Express
1721 1/2 Webster
Oakland, CA
Mon-Fri 11:30a-3p

Current mood: pleased

Monday, November 13, 2006

1:00PM - The Fine Place [DO]

Small soup and salad today. The soup (vegetable soup, the only one I eat from there, fresh on Mondays and leftover on Tuesdays) was thicker than usual, with a more bitter taste, but it could simply have cooked for longer. The salad was not made by the old lady, so rather than having one scoop of each type of vegetable added, the server carefully picked out vegetables from the trays one by one. They must be in trouble if giving me an extra carrot slice or olive would break the bank. Still, a tasty lunch.

The Fine Place
367 17th
Oakland, CA
Mon-Fri 7:30a-5p, Sat 8:30a-4p

Current mood: normal

Thursday, November 9, 2006

12:00PM - Emperor Chinese Gourmet [DO]

I was dragged in here again. Feh. This time I thought I would try the Mongolian beef. How can you screw that up? But when it came time to order, the waitress kept pushing me to try the General Tao chicken (which I had disliked last time), claiming it was an "opening sale" and was cheaper. Odd -- I was there closer to their actual opening and it wasn't on sale that time!

The Mongolian beef was amazingly not good. Large chunks of medium quality beef, yellow onion chunks, and a few vegetables, all in a cloyingly sweet sauce. They must only have one sauce the cook can make. "Extra spicy" apparently meant that instead of cooking it with more whole chili peppers, they would simply dump several handfuls of finely powdered dried peppers over the entire dish, rendering it barely edible.

I will resist further attempts to drag me here.

Emperor Chinese Gourmet
332 Frank Ogawa Plaza
Oakland, CA

Current mood: unhappy

Friday, October 27, 2006

12:00PM - Emperor Chinese Gourmet [DO]

(back after a long hiatus of writing commentary but not posting it.. sorry...)

I had heard that a new Chinese restaurant had taken over the old Sabuy Sabuy Jr location, so a week after they opened, I went to try it out.

After I opened the door, though, I might have turned around to leave had a waitress not already seen me. Every table had a fork and napkin, but no chopsticks, and there were salt and pepper shakers on the table -- never a great sign when you want authentic Chinese food. However, I was seated quickly, given a menu, and water and tea arrived in under a minute.

The menu is very generic: five breaded chicken dishes, four beef, five chicken, two pork, two vegetarian, and three shrimp dishes. One could easily work through the menu in a month if one could stomach it. After asking what was in a couple of the dishes (always best to confirm), I went for General Tao Chicken (pea pods, broccoli, onions, deep fried chicken). With a meal you are given two choices: oriental chicken salad or two egg rolls; chow mein, fried rice, or steamed rice. I went with the chicken salad and plain steamed rice.

The chicken salad was decent enough. The lettuce was shredded quite aggressively, making it difficult to eat until chopsticks (the cheap takeout kind) arrived. It was not a great salad, but did serve to offset the rest of the meal. The dish itself had one of those cloying sweet sauces. I did not like it much. The vegetables were okay, but the sauce was so stuck to the chicken that it was hard to finish the meal.

In other words, this was basically mall Chinese food. Being right across from city hall, their target market is probably well selected. And they might be able to compete with Saigon next door, because their prices are ever so slightly lower (although a "side order" of soup is $2, so maybe not). But there are many better options within ten blocks, and a few within five...

#78 in my downtown Oakland count.

Emperor Chinese Gourmet
332 Frank Ogawa Plaza
Oakland, CA

Current mood: disappointed

Friday, October 20, 2006

12:00PM - Palapas Taco Bar [DO]

I wanted more than just a simple salad, and needed to pick it up quickly, so headed over to Palapas for a ceviche salad. It was quite good when I first went, but this time it was very unexciting.

The very first time, there was a heaping pile of lettuce with a ton of ceviche on it, guacamole, sour cream, salsa, and a few dozen chips. This time the server guy was too "busy" for me (he was chatting with the other idle workers). He tossed in a small handful of lettuce, a single scoop of ceviche, a dab of guacamole, and a whopping pile of five chips. The food was indeed tasty, but this was like a third as much food as I had gotten last time. Sure, to go orders are often slightly smaller, but there was still ample room in the container. I would have been happier even just with more lettuce!

If they want it to be just an appetizer, they should price it accordingly.

Palapas Taco Bar
200 Frank H Ogawa Plaza
Oakland, CA

Current mood: upset

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

12:00PM - Chef Edward's BBQ [DO]

I have been craving barbecue for a while now, but it is hard to work while eating ribs (although it is easier than working while cleaning up spilled pho, but that's another post). I went to Chef Edward's when they first opened only to have a disappointing experience with huge crowds, incompetent service, a long wait, and lots of items on their menu that they were "out of". They have solved.. three of those.

I wanted the rib "sandwich" (lunch-sized portion), but that seemed like more food than I really needed. Instead, I chose the less expensive rib tip special, which still came with a side. And lo! they answered the phone. (that first week, a lot of people standing around were complaining because they tried to call in, but nobody was answering the phones).

There were not many people there, although it was maybe halfway full when we left at 12:10. That might also explain the faster service. However, the incompetence was still there. They gave me the wrong side (I checked before leaving), left the bread out of a coworker's order, and had a really difficult time with the cash register.

The rib tips were indeed tasty, especially with the hot sauce, but they were extremely hard to eat. Some "tips" were all gristle and bone, others were chock full of meat. Good food, but the next time, I'll pay more, stick to the ribs, and just not eat all of the food.

I chose greens for the side. They were quite bland, not at all what I expected. I think I thought they would be like the greens at Our Place: peppery and spicy, with a light crispness. These were just greens boiled for too long in water. Next time I'll try the black-eyed peas instead.

Chef Edwards Bar-b-que
1915 San Pablo
Oakland, CA
Tue-Thu 7a-8p, Fri-Sat 7a-10p, Sun 7a-11a

Current mood: eh, it was barbecue

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

12:00PM - Phuong Nam [DO]

I just wanted to pick something quick up, so ordered pho tai nam to go from Phuong Nam.

Now, one of the cardinal rules about takeout pho is that you cannot fit all of the noodles and meat into the container with the broth. Since I was thinking about work, I kind of forgot this. I quickly put the meat and jalapeños in, realized some of the rare meat had touched the noodles, picked them up with chopsticks, and started lowering them in.. only to finally wake up and realize imminent failure.

I could not save it with the chopsticks, even when I carefully grabbed a fork and tried to pull: the noodles were damp, falling apart, and even if I got them out there was no place to put them. Luckily I always put a large rimmed plate under my takeout soups. Partly for splatters (udon does that a lot), but mostly just to have a side area to place my spoon and chopsticks. The broth spilled, but the plate caught it. I could then spoon out broth to get the container to an eatable level, move the container to a second plate, and funnel the spilled broth into a cup for reheating and adding back in later.


The pho was pretty good. The flank meat was a lot better trimmed than usual, and even though I forgot about the broth level, I did separate the rare meat before adding it, so I had thin slices and not large chunks. Next time I will try to be more vigilant about the splashing, though...

Phuong Nam
1615 Clay St
Oakland, CA
Mon-Sat 11a-9p

Current mood: embarassed

Friday, October 13, 2006

12:00PM - Don Willy's Taqueria [DO]

Lupillo's closed down a few weeks ago, sadly enough. It did not seem like they would last, though. It is a poor location, and many of the customers who came in seemed to want the gringo style Mexican food rather than the more authentic tacos that they served. But Don Willy's sprang up after just a couple of weeks. (in fact, the server looks like the same person, so it may just be that the owner sold it as-is along with the staff)

I had to try the tacos, of course, just to see how they compared. They were not quite as good, but close. The al pastor was a lot less greasy, but also less tender. The carne asada was about the same. The chorizo was tender and tasty, but had none of the crunchy bits that I really love. And the chips came with a salsa roja, which I much prefer to the salsa verde.

They were also clearly still trying to figure out what they were doing. I had to ask for water twice, and my companion, who ordered a carne asada plate, had to ask because they forgot the lettuce/guac/cream, the tortillas, and his chips. But this will probably improve, given time. It is a hard call, and I would not recommend it as highly as I did Lupillo's, but it is a pretty decent taco option for the downtown area.

Downtown Oakland restaurant #77 for me, and a far sight better than Luka's was.

Don Willy's Taqueria
333 17th St
Oakland, CA
Mon-Fri 8:30a-4:30p

Current mood: satisfied

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

12:00PM - Luka's [DO]

(yep, that's right, October 11th. I'm just a wee tad behind...)

Rather than posting exactly what I did in the oakland_eats group, I'll just link to it. Most of you are over there anyway.

Luka's review. In summary: very loud, food not so good, horrible service, and not cheap.

This was downtown Oakland #76 for me, so I thought I would mention it here as well. You would think I would run out of places some day soon. But no: there are many "eh, no thanks" places, closures, places in Chinatown where I cannot tell if I should enter or not, and, well, there are always the slums of Old Oakland...

2221 Broadway
Oakland, CA

Current mood: extremely disappointed

Friday, October 6, 2006

12:00PM - Lana's [DO]

Tricked into coming back to this Chinese steam table N-item place (because I could not come up with an excuse quickly enough), I did pick up a decent tip.

Instead of getting "full" portions, you can ask for "small" portions. Ask for that up-front, then say "whoa! whoa! enough!" when each item is halfway full. This allowed me to get three items for just $4.18, about a dollar less than the "full" portions -- and it was still ample food.

I went for the mixed veggies, which were fresh and therefore had a decent distribution of vegetables (towards the end it's all cabbage). Green bean chicken was my second item, and it was okay. They were crunchy, and I still prefer the dry braised method. And the third item, garlic chicken, was an enormous portion. I wish I had had more mixed veggies and less garlic chicken, because I felt really bloated at the end of the meal.

With the "small" portions tactic, this is actually a pretty economical place to eat at. Now and then.

435 19th St
Oakland, CA
Mon-Fri 7:30a-3:30p, Sat 11:30a-3p

Current mood: thrifty

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